Two girls and a guy walk into a bar. The bartender proceeds to mack on the women while a crowd of inebriated, touchy men fall over themselves to introduce themselves as intimately as possible in the cramped space. As the two girls try to make themselves as small as possible, their male friend puts his arms around both of them, and loudly orders drinks for himself and “both his women” as the crowd begins to back off.
This story is entirely made up, but it’s no joke. I could easily have encountered such a situation while I was in South Africa, out with other volunteers. And in certain contexts, I definitely would have had the same instinct as the guy in the story. Now, we may all agree that the situation the girls were in was definitely not a good one. But the reaction of the guy may have left you upset. How did his friends become “his women”? If he’s trying to help them fight the patriarchy, why is he playing into it?
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, odds are you may be an independent minded woman who enjoys traveling the world. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that traveling alone as a woman can be more dangerous than with companions. And as much you may hate to admit it, traveling with male companions can make much of the world a lot safer. (Of course, traveling with a local is probably the safest and best way to see a country, but that’s another issue altogether.) As travelers, male or female, we find ourselves in unfamiliar places and often can use an ally. How does one go about being an ally? From my experience, it’s not always black and white. Sometimes, a person in distress just wants to get through the situation as quickly as possible and get some sympathy afterwards. Sometimes, a little humor can go a long way to diffuse a situation. Sometimes, a person can be in danger of harm unless an ally sticks their neck out.
Following are some stories from my own experiences. Some names have been changed to preserve privacy. I’m not claiming these were the right or wrong ways to react. But I hope that you’ll read through and leave a response.
In South Africa, Peace Corps Volunteers would often converge in our “shopping towns,” the nearest urban centers where we could get groceries and basic goods. The usual means of transportation to and from these towns involved the public taxi system. Mini-bus taxis, small SUVs with extra seats added in, and covered pickups with benches in the back, were all fairly common where I was. More often than not, these do not run on any kind of schedule. They leave when they are full. This means two things for the traveler: You’ve got some time to kill and enjoy the circulation in your legs while you still have it. The waiting game sometimes starts earlier, as you wait for one of these taxis to fill and arrive from their first stop. So we spent a lot of time sitting around taxi ranks.
”]”]After a full day of grocery shopping and errands, Amy, Melody, Katie, and I were sitting on a bench waiting for our rides to come in. While we chatted, two men approached. I quickly made eye contact and we exchanged greetings.
“My brother, you have so many women. You must share some with us.”
“Trust me my friend, you don’t want these women. They are American women. They are strong headed and they won’t cook.”
“But why do you have so many?”
“These women are my sisters. So believe me, I know them well.”
Now, I’m pretty sure the didn’t buy the claim that the Indian guy was the brother of these three white women, but they didn’t push things any further. We joked for a little while longer, with Amy asserting vigorously that an American woman was definitely not what they were looking for. Eventually, the guys left.
Unfortunately, some guys skip the whole small talk bit and go straight to the groping. In these cases, humor is less useful.
Katie and I were traveling to a meeting in Pretoria and had the distinguished pleasure of sitting in the far back corner. Between us and our two other row mates, it was a tight squeeze, but at least Katie had managed to grab the window. Control of air-flow is something you learn not to take for granted. As we sat while the bags were being loaded, we had the window wide open, enjoying the morning breeze. A few yards away, a guy was definitely checking Katie out. She caught view of him out of the corner of her eye and decided to try the “ignore” strategy, staring straight ahead and pretending he didn’t exist. That didn’t seem to make much of a difference to this guy, who eventually just walked over and grabbed her through the window. After some yelling and slapping, the window was closed.
Fortunately, we soon got on our way and we slid the window open again. Within a few minutes though, we pulled into a gas station to fill up. It was pretty hot. I could see the conflict on Katie’s face as she tried to choose between being able to breathe and being able to relax without watching every man that walked by. Finally, she settled on the open window but gave death stares to any guy that so much as glanced over. It’s a no win situation, because some guys seem to still see this as an invitation. One started to come over. This time, I slipped my arm around Katie’s shoulder and added my own death stare. Once he was within a yard, he tried to greet Katie and I greeted him back. (Yes, you must always greet. Even when giving death stares.) The guy left. The window stayed open but I didn’t take my arm away until we were well on the road again.
Shopping and meetings were not the only reasons to go to town. When one of the girls from our group got married in Vryburg, many of us were able to go to town to celebrate. Before the wedding, we were still busy putting together a gift for our friend and were running all over the town to get different things. I was in a group with Katie, Aaron, and Alex. To save time, Aaron wanted to take a short cut through the taxi rank. Katie was not so enthusiastic. We figured, there were three guys. No one was going to mess with her and eventually she agreed. As we went through, we got many looks because: white South Africans almost never go near a taxi rank , it’s still a very odd site in smaller towns to see a mixed group of white and Indian people, and one of us was a woman. Soon, the cat calls started and they were, of course, all directed at Katie. It’s degrading and demeaning, but I figured Katie was not in any immediate danger so my strategy was to do nothing and get through as quickly as possible. Aaron, though, had had enough, turning to one group of guys, waving his arm and yelling, “Voetsek!” Now, the word “Voetsek!” is Afrikaans command usually given to dogs and literally translated means “Foot sack!”. When directed to people, it’s more like “Fuck off!” Coming from a white guy in the middle of a taxi rank though, it was potentially a lot worse than that. We sped up and quickly got through the rest of the rank.
Chivalry is Dead; Long Live Humanity
In all these situations, there are things all of us could have done differently. There were many situations where I saw getting involved as making things worse, so I tried to get through the situation as quickly as possible and offer a sympathetic acknowledgment that “that sucked”. The right action is not always clear. But one thing is clear to me. The motivation for action is not that men must protect the honor and dignity of women. The motivation is that humans should protect the honor and dignity of humans. Whenever this principle is followed, I don’t think you run the risk of being patronizing. Sometimes we may play off the ingrained stereotypes, but as long as the baseline respect for each other as equals exists, I don’t think it’s necessarily out of line. Allies come in all shapes, forms and colors. An ally one day will need an ally the next. I’ll always be thankful to Katie for the time where she helped diffuse a situation where I got kicked out of a hotel lobby for being Indian.
Just because the motivation to be an ally derives from a common humanity does not mean that it’s ever clear what course of action will most preserve human dignity. That’s where the debate begins.